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SDC by the numbers: Focus on housing

SDC by the numbers: Focus on housing


By Tracy Salcedo

This is the first in a series of articles exploring different aspects of redeveloping the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) in the runup to release of three alternative plans for the property, one of which will become the foundation for Sonoma County’s SDC Specific Plan. Release of the alternatives was expected in mid-September, but has been pushed back to later this fall.

As we await the unveiling of three alternative scenarios for future use of the SDC, it seems wise to consider different aspects of its redevelopment in small bites and in context. Doing so may help us better inform what kinds of development we live with on the site in the future, and the feedback we give Sonoma County’s planners and consultants as they seek comment on its community-driven specific plan.

Certain things must happen on the SDC; they are stipulated in the legislation that created the three-year planning period we are now in. The legislation states the better part of the SDC’s acreage must be preserved as open space, which means the alternatives should delineate a firm boundary between what can be developed and what cannot. On the campus, the legislation stipulates affordable housing must be provided, but not how much.

That’s the question this column attempts to frame in context: How many new homes can be built on the SDC, sustainably and with benefits, without ruining the place?

The Word Problem

You are a local resident, and must approve one of three alternatives for housing on the 200-acre SDC campus. Plan A calls for 500 homes; Plan B for 1,000 homes; and Plan C for 1,500 homes. Each dwelling houses four people; two of those people each own a car. In selecting the best plan, please consider impacts on traffic, evacuation in wildfire, availability of water, a wildlife corridor, affordable and workforce housing stock, the rural character of the surrounding community, and any other pertinent consideration.

How many homes should be built? Show your work.

The Basic Math

Plan A: 500 homes = 2,000 people + 1,000 cars.

Plan B: 1,000 homes = 4,000 people + 2,000 cars.

Plan C: 1,500 homes = 6,000 people + 3,000 cars.

Deep breaths …

The Calculus of the Hitches

If only choosing the best answer for the SDC was as easy as the basic math. It’s not. Working through the intricacies and impacts of building homes on SDC gives new meaning to naturalist John Muir’s observation: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Aside from what punches the gut, like how we escape fire blowing out of the Mayacamas when the two roads out are clotted with 1,000 additional cars, we have to consider numbers in the news and numbers on the ground. I can’t inform what readers feel in their guts, but I can shed light on some of the numbers we know, hoping these explanations and figures help readers generate not only a well-reasoned answer to the problem, but also well-reasoned feedback to county officials.

Big-Picture Numbers

An alphabet soup of acronyms, like ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) and RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation), accompanies any conversation about housing. The numbers generated under their auspices are derived via stultifying methodologies (trust me; I’ve read them). As obtuse as their derivation might be, these numbers are important because they quantify what we all know: Sonoma County (and the Bay Area, and California overall) doesn’t have enough affordable housing.

It is important to understand the SDC’s redevelopment should not be determined by these housing allocation requirements because this “RHNA cycle” is specific to housing that can be provided between 2023 and 2030. SDC can’t be factored in because the property hasn’t even been put on the market yet, much less built out.

That said, any conversation about housing is likely to include reference to RHNA, so here are some basics: RHNA requires the creation of 3,881 units in unincorporated Sonoma County in that eight-year period. The county is appealing the RHNA determination, requesting a reduction to 1,910 units, saying that’s all there’s room for on “land suitable for urban development or for conversion to residential use.” The county argues the higher RHNA number is impossible to reconcile given conflicting mandates from the state, which requires providing affordable housing on the one hand, and ensuring housing is “firesafe” (that is, built outside the wildland-urban interface); reduces traffic and its environmental impacts; and mitigates the current “drought emergency” on the other.

The county’s concerns echo hitches we should all keep in mind when thinking about housing numbers on SDC.

Numbers from SDC Past

Another set of numbers tossed into any conversation about housing on SDC is how many people lived and worked there when the institution was in its heyday. Those numbers vary depending on the source, but coalesce in the 5,000 range: ~3,500 residents and ~1,500 caregivers.

What did that look like on the ground? Bear in mind that SDC was an institution, not neighborhood or a small town. Residents were mostly confined to the campus footprint, living in the buildings we see there today. Because of their disabilities, they didn’t drive, so didn’t individually contribute to traffic in the region. Many had ambulatory constraints, so couldn’t contribute to human traffic on trails in the surrounding open spaces or wildlife corridor.

Caregivers came and went in three shifts every day. If each commuted to work in their own vehicle, a maximum of 1000 cars were on the road at each shift change — and likely fewer, since that number discounts carpools, workers living on campus, and people living locally who may have walked or biked to their jobs.

Bear in mind, also, that the population of SDC hit its apex in the 1950s and 1960s. A lot has changed in Sonoma Valley in 60 years, and the growth in numbers of residents, workers, and tourists valley-wide more than compensates for the loss in numbers of residents and workers at SDC.

Numbers from Glen Ellen

Glen Ellen’s 95442 ZIP code covers about 27 square miles (17,280 acres), sprawling from Madrone Road north to Kenwood, and from Jack London State Historic Park on Sonoma Mountain to near the crest of the Mayacamas. Currently, ~4,000 residents live in ~1,700 dwelling units across that expanse. Extrapolating density across the ZIP code is meaningless. It’s more informative, when considering the carrying capacity of SDC’s campus, to understand that about 700 dwelling units make up the village, and about 350 units make up the more concentrated neighborhoods south of SDC, excluding the ~100 homes south of Madrone Road.

The Right Answer

I don’t have it. But that’s okay: it’s not my job.

The consultants will spell out and justify three numbers in the alternatives. My job will be to have a well-considered number in mind so I can provide constructive feedback on those alternatives, or voice my preference for one of them. My answer will be informed by all of the above, as well as all the hitches: traffic; evacuation from wildfire; water (in a drought); the wildlife corridor; rural character; and, sorely needed affordable and workforce housing. Yours can be as well.

Glen Ellen’s Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning writer and editor.